"As a restaurant owner, my responsibility is to offer people meaningful time together," says Neal Brown, whose artisanal wood-fired pies at Pizzology in Carmel send foodies reeling with glee. "The food is the catalyst for that time."
Indiana-born Brown is an energetic alchemist, and not just in the kitchen. His business savvy, paired with his mission to connect food providers with consumers, make him a formidable force in Indy's cultural and culinary landscapes. A graduate of Noblesville High School, IU, and Johnson & Wales University, Brown began as an assistant to Greg Hardesty at H20 Sushi and served as executive chef at Brugge Brasserie before embarking with L'explorateur — a Broad Ripple fine dining mecca from 2006 to 2009, and a victim of an economy that shriveled like a prune.
Last year Brown began anew with a top-shelf version of a well-loved staple. "When you go through a recession, people go back to what they know and what's comfortable," he says. "Pizza is recession-friendly, and it's in alignment with my belief about bringing people together — it's one of the few foods that people share." (Though the Pizzology pie with homemade sausage and roasted red peppers is so good it makes one not want to share). The lines out the door at Pizzology are prompting Brown to scope out some other sites around town in areas "not currently served by strong pizza players."
Meanwhile, Brown is at work on a new restaurant concept: Tiger & Taco, with ceviche tacos in a starring role. Ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spices; the tiger reference comes from leche de tigre (milk of the tiger) — the Peruvian term for the intense marinade, known as a hangover cure and aphrodisiac. Brown's been busy perfecting the ceviche technique and sourcing. Though he's traveled very little, he's a hound for research. "I do a ton of reading," he says. "I love studying the cultural origins of food, and indigenous ingredients."
Here at home, Brown describes the restaurant scene as "awesome," citing John Adams at H20 Sushi, Abbi Merris at Recess and two members of the Pizzology team, Erica Smith and Carlos Salazar, as rising stars of the new guard. He's excited by the increase in independent eateries round town, spearheaded by the often unassuming ethnic restaurants. "These places expand people's thinking about what's possible in food. If people will eat Thai or Mexican, it's a lot easier to feed them what I like to feed them!" says Brown. "I like stimulating people to think about what they're eating."
Case in point: last August's Dig-IN event, a locavore food fest that attracted 3,500 to White River State Park. Brown and Ann Schmelzer of the Indiana Dept. of Agriculture and other partners designed the event to "connect the consumer to the Indiana farmers, breweries, wineries and independent chefs, who already work hand in hand," Brown says. Look for a reprise of the festival in summer 2011. Brown also volunteers with The Chef's Academy and Slow Food Indy.
For now, Brown's biggest gamble is that even in lean times, customers will get back into the marketplace and happily slap down the cash for an authentic, well-executed, stimulating, communal experience of food that he's more than ready to provide.